Plan ahead to visit the mountain gorillas

December 8th 2021  |   Wildlife Safaris, Rwanda, Uganda  |  by   Francis Naumann
Plan ahead to visit the mountain gorillas

The wonderfully impressive mountain gorillas, which share a whopping 98% of our DNA, live in the dense forests on and around the Virunga Massif (a chain of volcanoes bordering Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda), as well as the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda.

Rwanda Virunga Lodge lake

Magnificent scenery in the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda

Very much an endangered species, the numbers are slowly rising with the population currently just over 1,000 individuals.  Although still a tiny number, it’s wonderful to see the increase given that the mountain gorillas were once expected to be extinct by the millennium.  It’s thanks to some incredible conservation efforts, which are directly funded by gorilla tracking permits, that this is hopefully a belief of the past.

Gorillas in their natural habitat.  Virunga Lodge, Rwanda.

It is the gorilla permit that allows travellers the chance to track gorilla family groups in their natural environment.  Our advice is to book in early as the permits are limited to 180 each day in Uganda and just 80 per day in Rwanda.  It’s amazing how far in advance these book up, especially in the peak months of December to February, and June to October.

Volcanoes Lodge gorilla at the lodge

Occasionally gorillas wander into camp as this one has at Bwindi Lodge, Uganda.

The permits are expensive:  US$700 each in Uganda  and $1,500 each in Rwanda (until 2017 the permit prices were broadly similar.  The Rwanda Development Board raised the cost to $1,500 per track to increase funding for conservation and the support of local communities living in gorilla areas). But it is important to understand that the reason for these premium prices is to fund gorilla conservation and help preserve the delicate habitats essential for their survival.  The arrival of gorilla tourism has also brought work and income to people living adjacent to the parks – so it’s easy to argue the permits benefit the local communities too.

Bisate Lodge

Luxurious accommodation at Bisate Lodge in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park

The permits allow visitors to spend an hour in the company of a mountain gorilla family.  With the local trackers’ incredible knowledge, the success rate of finding these magnificent apes is about 98%.  We would always suggest a second trek if your budget allows. So often on the first encounter you spend the whole time behind your camera and not fully taking the time to observe them first hand. This second trek allows you to relax a bit more and enjoy their company.

The permit allows one hour with the gorillas. Virunga Lodge

Volcanoes National Park is in northern Rwanda and is part of the Virunga Mountain range, just a three hour drive from Kigali, Rwanda’s capital. The gorillas here live in the bamboo forest, and it’s often considered slightly easier to track here than in Uganda. They are often spotted in large clearings which make for easier photography. We would suggest staying at the stunning Virunga Lodge, or for a bit more luxury have a look at Bisate Lodge or Singita Kwitonda Lodge.

Luxury accommodation at Singita Kwitonda Lodge, Parc National des Volcans, Rwanda

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in western Uganda (about a two hour flight from Entebbe) is home to over half world’s wild mountain gorilla population.  The lush rainforest vegetation is denser than the bamboo of Rwanda so walking can be arduous at certain times of year.  It’s worth noting that Bwindi is also home to 93 mammal species, including 11 types of primate, as well as almost 350 bird species.  These animals and birds can be viewed on nature walks alongside a knowledgeable national park’s guide. Our favourite lodges here include Bwindi Volcanoes Lodge, Mahogany Springs Lodge and Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp.

Admiring the scenery from Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda

If an hour isn’t enough time with the gorillas for you, then you might be interested to hear about the gorilla habituation permits which are available in the Rushaga sector in southern Bwindi. A single habituation permit costs $1,500, however the experience is worth the price, allowing you up to four hours with the gorillas, and a maximum group size of just four people (compared with eight on the standard gorilla permit).  Habituation is the slow and gentle introduction of wild gorillas to the presence of humans, and takes between three and five years per family. With the habituation treks, travellers will get a more profound understanding of gorilla behaviour, and of course you will have more time to observe and photograph them in intimate surroundings. In order to obtain these permits, you will need to stay at a lodge such as Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge, Nkuringo.

Young gorilla in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge, Uganda

There’s no doubt that gorilla tracking is one of the most exciting wildlife encounters you can experience; nothing can prepare you for that “pinch me” moment of coming face to face with a wild (albeit habituated) silverback, standing six feet tall, weighing around 400lbs.

What else?

Both Uganda and Rwanda offer much more than just gorillas, and two week itineraries to either of these magnificent countries can be among the most varied and fascinating in Africa. Uganda has a wealth of national parks spread across the country with amazingly varied habitats and landscapes. The full range of savannah wildlife can be seen, and so can forest dwellers such as chimpanzees. Keen birdwatchers will enjoy spotting some of the 1000 plus species birds found here.

Mazike Valley Lodge tree climbing lion

Excellent general wildlife viewing in Uganda. Mazike Valley Lodge

Rwanda makes a strong case for itself with Akagera National Park on its eastern edge being a mix of savannah, woodland, marshes and lakes, and is the only place in Africa where shoebill and black rhino can be seen in the same reserve. Nyungwe Forest is a magnificent expanse of montane rainforest with a wealth of primates to seek out.

Magashi Camp arrival by boat

Arriving at Magashi Camp in Akagera National Park

What next?
Our team of experts has travelled widely throughout Africa and the Indian Ocean and can offer advice on every type of safari from family and beach holidays to riding and primate safaris. If you are keen to include gorilla tracking in a safari itinerary do get in touch – chatting to people in person, by phone or email is what we do best. We listen, we explain, we answer all sorts of questions even those you didn’t know to ask, and finally we make suggestions. If this is your first time to Africa or your twenty first, we have a team standing by to help make the planning easy and the journey the best ever. Please get in touch whatever stage you’re at.

2 responses to “Plan ahead to visit the mountain gorillas”

  1. Richard Zito says:

    How long are the gorilla treks. I’m concerned if I’m in good enough shape to go on one.

    • Richard Smith says:

      Thanks for your question Richard. The gorilla treks range in length and can be anything from 30 minutes to six or seven hours, depending on where the gorillas are. We believe Rwanda to have the slightly easier treks with thinner vegetation and you are also able to request a specific gorilla family (and therefore choose an easier or harder walk). We would recommend hiring porters who are able to carry your bags and help you with the climb. As long as you have a good general level of fitness, then you should be absolutely fine!

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